Rhode Island Seeks to Change Its Official Name to Erase Slavery Connotations

A petition to change the official name of Rhode Island is getting a lot of attention. Is a new name in store for Rhode Island? Not exactly...

Amber Garrett - Author

Jun. 24 2020, Updated 3:42 p.m. ET

rhode island new name
Source: getty/twitter

Raise your hand if you already knew that the official name of the state of Rhode Island is not, in fact Rhode Island. I'm guessing if you're not from Rhode Island, you probably didn't raise your hand. A lot of people outside the state are learning for the first time that the state's official name is much longer and has some connotations that reflect the state's past with slavery and the displacement of Indigenous people. And while Rhode Island won't likely be getting a new name entirely, it may be headed for a slight edit.

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Is Rhode Island getting a new name? Why is it controversial anyway?

Despite being the smallest state in the union, Rhode Island has the longest official name. The full name is actually the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, and it's that last part about the plantations that is under scrutiny. While it's not the first time there has been a movement to change the official state name, the current movement seems to have picked up steam.

rhode island seal
Source: Rhode Island Historical Society
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The "Providence Plantations" part of the name comes from the first settlement in the state. Many historians argue that the "Plantations" part is merely an antiquated synonym for "colony," but Rhode Island does have a complicated past when it comes to slavery. The colony had more enslaved people per capita than any other colony in the North and had very strict laws to control their enslaved population.

The state was also the most active in profiting from trafficking Black enslaved Africans. Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade of African slaves in the years immediately after the Revolutionary War. Even after slavery was abolished in the state, Black freedmen were "warned out" of towns seeking to keep the population white.

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Rhode Islanders have tried to change the name before.

In 2010, a referendum to shorten the state's official name made it onto the ballot but nearly 80 percent of voters sided in favor of retaining "Providence Plantations" in the name.

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Ten years later, it looks like the state may be ready for the change. On June 22, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order altering how the state would be referred to on official documents. A new resolution was also introduced in the state legislature on June 18 by state senator Harold Metts, passing unanimously. A companion piece of legislation will be voted on in July and, if it passes, the change will again be subject to a referendum vote in November.

But will Rhode Islanders have changed their tune on the matter in the past decade? The state is overwhelmingly white — over 80 percent — and many of those voters, and even lawmakers, seem either unwilling to acknowledge the state's history with slavery or are wholly ignorant of its role in the trafficking of Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the U.S. against their will. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in November.

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